Professional Development Opinion

Response: The Difference Between Parent “Involvement” & Parent “Engagement”

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 27, 2012 11 min read
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(This is the final post in a three part series on parent engagement. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Kanwal Sachdeva asked:

I enjoyed reading your article on ‘how to make students learn to listen’. My question is- How do we make parents to listen to the teachers? You know, for the students who need more help, the parents are not available to talk or they will not really listen. How do we make them understand teacher’s perspective and not believe everything that the student is saying? How do we build that trust?

Parent engagement is a critical piece in creating a successful learning environment. Thanks for raising this important issue, Kanwal!

Last week, National PTA President Betsy Landers and Carrie Rose, Executive Director of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, shared their responses to this question. In Part Two of this series, educators Steve Constantino and Joe Mazza contributed a conversation they had on this topic.

Today, I’ll share some of my thoughts; Mai Xi Lee, a very talented administrator at the school where I teach, will contribute her own reflections, author Katy Ridnouer offers a response, and I’ll end this series with a sample of readers’ comments.

The Difference Between Parent “Involvement” & Parent “Engagement”

I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on building trust between teachers and parents in this third and final post responding to Kanwal’s question. I think I can best contribute to the discussion by highlighting what I see as the difference between parent involvement and parent engagement. Though there can be a positive result from both, I believe the most trust can be developed through engagement.

Simply put, parent involvement is often more of a “doing to,” while engagement is a “doing with.” With involvement, schools tend to lead with their mouth -- generally telling parents what they should be doing. Engagement, on the other hand, has schools leading with their ears. By listening to parents’ ideas, and by eliciting from them what they have found works best with their children, we can develop a more genuine partnership that is helpful to young people. I have gained great insight over the years about becoming a more effective teacher by asking parents a simple question: “Can you please tell me about the times in your child’s life that he/she has seemed to be learning the most and working hard in school, and what you think their teacher was doing at that time to encourage it?”

Another example of this kind of difference is what I call the focus on communication, which is often one-way, that is a hallmark of parent involvement. Schools across the country emphasize sending sheets of information home (which often do not arrive or, if they do, can be in a language that parents don’t understand) and using automated phone calls. Engagement tries to utilize two-way conversation, through efforts like making home visits and phone calls that don’t necessarily only happen when there’s a problem with a child.

“Parent academies” are increasing in popularity across the country, where schools organize classes for parents where they are trained about how schools work. At schools where involvement takes the lead, the curriculum for these classes is often pre-determined by the school and classes are led and taught by school staff. Compare that to the parent academy at our school that regularly attracts one hundred participants. Parents work with Elisa Gonzalez, our parent coordinator, to identify topics that should be covered -- which might or might not be focused on the school (for example, the citizenship process was one recent topic) -- run the meetings, and “own” the entire project.

During my nineteen year community organizing career, we often talked about the difference between “irritation” and “agitation” -- we irritate people when we challenge them to do something about what we are interested in, while we agitate people when we challenge them to act on their interest. Involvement often leans toward “irritation” -- schools might have a pre-determined, and limited, list of ways they want parents to help, such as making copies, organizing bake sales, etc. Engagement, instead, looks through the lens of “agitation.” For example, during one home visit I made to an immigrant family, the father went on at length about how thrilled he was at our use of the Internet at school to help his daughter learn English, and how he wished he could afford a computer and Web connection at his house so the entire family could learn, too. Instead of just listening politely and leaving (and forgetting), or going back to see if our school could organize such a program for parents, I asked him if he knew other parents who felt the same and if he would be willing to organize a meeting of them to see if there might be something we could do together. He agreed, and then parents worked with our school to develop a project that provided free home computers and Internet service to immigrant families. It was later named the most effective use of technology to teach reading in the world by the International Reading Association.

Another important difference, I’d like to suggest, is that there is a tendency with involvement to focus solely on improving what goes on within the four walls of the school while, in engagement, there is recognition that the school must be participating as an institution in neighborhood-wide improvement efforts.

I want to leave space in this post for my guests, so I’ll end my comments here. You can, however, find a complete list of my recommended parent engagement resources here.

Response From Mai Xi Lee

Mai Xi Lee is an Assistant Principal at Luther Burbank High School. She is co-coordinator of the Parent University program at LBHS, which aims to promote parents’ understanding of higher education and connects parents to the educational system.

First and foremost, we don’t “make” parents do anything they don’t want to do. The notion that we should “make” or force someone to do something implies some hierarchy of power, where we are higher on the hierarchy and they, the parents, are lower than us. This premise will not result in a positive reaction from parents and only further obstructs any relationship we hope to foster and nurture with our parents. Parents are teaching partners and should be embraced as such. Teaching partners work in a symbiotic relationship based on mutual respect, trust, and consistent communication. When we as teaching professionals acknowledge and accept this relationship, we’ll be better prepared to support all students and families in any learning capacity.

Armed with the understanding that we are teaching partners, dialoguing with parents should be quite simplistic and seamless. Like any partnership, we create a shared vision, establish common goals and expectations, and foster trust and confidence by engaging in regular communication. We do all this at the beginning of the partnership and continue to work at it throughout the duration of the relationship.

For teachers and parents, home visits at the beginning of the school year can serve as the first mechanism for establishing a foundation for a positive relationship. Periodic check-ins to parents, via phone calls, notes, and follow-up home visits will help to build trust and strengthen the teaching partnership. Parents will listen to a teacher if they are connected to that teacher and feel as if they, too, have been heard. Again, the teaching partnership is based on mutual respect and trust. People instinctively listen to those they respect and trust.

When we do, however, get into a situation where we can’t get the parent to hear our perspectives as teachers, then it’s time for some self-examination about why that is the case. This self-inquiry begins with some basic questions: Do you, the teacher, have a relationship with the parents, aside from the fact that their child is in your classroom? What mechanisms have been put into place to foster a relationship? What is your level of engagement with the parent? Have you talked to this parent before? When you did converse, was the call about a positive thing or did it focus on negative attributes only? If the answers reveal limited contact, engagement, and positive conversations, then you may want to approach the parent from a different angle. Conducting a parent teacher home visit may be the first critical step to establishing some relationship. Continuing to foster that relationship will necessitate a new perspective about what it means to be heard as a teacher and how to connect with parents who may know more about their child than you do as their teacher.

Katy Ridnouer

Katy Ridnouer is the author of two books written as tools for teachers: Managing Your Classroom with Heart: A Guide for Nurturing Adolescent Learners and Everyday Engagement: Making Students and Parents Your Partners in Learning. Since 1993, she has taught in public and private schools, teaching students ranging in ages from 5 to 55. She currently teaches Developmental English at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina and lives there with her husband and three boys.

Just as any teacher worth his teaching certificate knows that he can’t make a student learn, each teacher needs to be aware that she can’t make a parent listen to her. Instead, we teachers need to work at creating opportunities for parents to become thirsty for a relationship with teachers just as we work to create opportunities for creating a thirst for learning in our students. For the students, the pools of knowledge and accomplishment will quench this thirst; for parents, the establishment of trust and a partnership will quench their thirst.

Teachers build trust between parents and themselves on Day 1 when each student has a 100%, A-plus average and each parent has a smile on his or her face. Students and parents alike might have concerns about the school year, but deep- down, there is a bud of hope that this year a teacher will succeed at connecting the curriculum to the “real” life of students.

Start to build trust and a partnership with your students’ parents at the beginning of the school year by assigning each parent the “In one million words or less...” homework assignment. Offer these directions:

“In one million words or less, tell me about your child. You may email me or send me a handwritten note; either way, help me meet your child’s needs by sharing your child’s story.”

Beware: The parents are going to be nervous, but they will also be excited that a teacher cares so much that she would take her time to read what parents have to say about her students. Some parents will not complete the assignment. Other parents will send you a dissertation-sized document. Assign. This. Anyway.

Each parent, even the one who doesn’t do her homework, will receive the message that you care about your students because you have begun the school year with an act of compassion with the goal to bridge understanding and build relationships through shared knowledge. This knowledge builds trust, so when a teacher calls or emails with a concern later in the school year, chances are good that parents will respond with a willing, open ear instead of a defensive, closed one.

Responses From Readers

Several readers offered their thoughts on the question. I’ve included excerpts along with links back to their entire comments:


I called all of my student’s parents every 2 weeks. I would divide the number up over 6 days and call that many parents each night. I would just touch base with them and usually brag about their child. So when I needed to discuss a problem with their child, they usually were very understanding and supportive.

Tammy King, WIDA Blogger:

Trust is essential when building relationships with parents. We can begin building that relationship by actively listening to our parents’ needs. Many of our students are English language learners. Their parents may not be familiar with the American school system or American teachers’ expectations of parental involvement vs parent engagement. I recently wrote a blog post with tips for reaching out to ELL parents.


I have found it useful to make a shift away from trying to “make parents listen” and instead focus my energy on the goal of listening to them. As the person who may hold more power & authority in the relationship, I think the first responsibility falls on the teacher to open the door to 2-way communication and relationship-building. Once the teacher has earned the parent’s trust, they will be more likely to listen.


Through 14 years of designated parent-teacher conferences, I finally understand. It took me 12 years to figure out why I would go home exhausted from these times. Parents simply want to know I have their children’s best interests in mind, and that I am willing to listen.

Clare H:

Not only is it important to listen to parents, but it is also worthwhile to take parental suggestions into consideration and then to actually implement those recommendations. When parents see that their suggestions have been incorporated in the classroom, they become more invested.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Mai Xi, Katy and readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.